By John Mesenbrink
Recently, Ron Passafaro, president & CEO of ECR International, was re-elected as Chairman of the Hydronics Institute through 2017.
Passafaro, who has been a member of the Hydronics Institute his entire career and has served on its Executive Board since 2007, said, “I am honored and humbled to be re-elected by my competitors and industry peers. Our industry continues to face increasing Federal and State regulation governing residential and commercial boiler efficiency standards. I am committed to working with both our government representatives and member companies to meet and exceed the North American market’s expectations.”
In the wake of this news, Mechanical Hub recently talked with Passafaro about ECR and the industry. The following is Ron Passafaro in his own words.
How did you get involved in the industry?
During the 1980s I was working for Abbott Laboratories selling medical equipment in New England when I received a phone call from John Reed of Dunkirk Radiator. John and I grew up together in the Dunkirk area and he told me that Dunkirk Radiator wanted to establish its own brand and start a national distribution channel to supplement their historical OEM business I had lived in Boston for five years and had no vision of ever moving back home to western New York but I took the time to meet with the Dunkirk management team and we talked about their objectives. After learning what they wanted to accomplish I found it very exciting and challenging to have the opportunity to create a national brand and distribution channel at age 29. I jumped at the opportunity and had a ball doing it. Clearly it turned out to be the best decision of my professional career.
What are some things you’ve learned throughout your career that have helped you in your current position?
I learned a long time ago about Servant Leadership and it is a philosophy that I very much believe in and try to live — not always successfully. Servant leadership is best explained graphically by turning the conventional corporate hierarchical triangle upside down. The most important persons in priority within a company is the customer and then those that interact and serve the customer directly (sales, tech support etc.) and then those that support the people that interact with the customer and so on. The CEO realizes that he or she is simply there to serve all the others and does so by ensuring they have the resources and support necessary.
Care — You won’t always be right and you won’t always get it right but if you care you’ll try hard enough to fix the times you miss.
Be Genuine — Don’t be who you think they want you to be because you’ll never be any good at it. No matter our position in life we are only good at being ourselves besides employees and customers can sniff out a phony in a heartbeat and you can’t ever recover from that. People forgive mistakes they don’t forgive deceit.
How has ECR navigated through the tough economy?
The tough economy has required us to get back to basics. We truly need to understand what the customer wants and what they are willing to pay for and that means asking good questions and listening. There isn’t time or resource to miss the mark on what the customer is willing to buy. In order for us to capitalize we need to develop solution based products that meet needs of today and the near future.
The market is changing so much faster than when I first started in the industry nearly 30 years ago. That is why roughly 1/3 of our salary workforce is dedicated to engineering and product development. Over the past four years we have been averaging three to four new or heavily modified product introductions per year. That’s pretty astounding when you think about it but that is what’s required by this demanding market. With that type of development activity we need to hold costs down and have done so by investing in our manufacturing operations to improve process control which increases throughput while increasing quality and reducing costs all at the same time.
How does business in the near term look?
We’re fairly bullish on the market over the near term and feel like the boiler market will continue to grow. I was traveling in New England during February calling on contractors this year and the common response to my question, “how’s business?” was if they could even get to the basements through the snow they had to repair versus replace because they couldn’t leave the homes without heat for that long. We have had two very cold, long winters in a row which has driven a lot of repair work that normally would have been replacement so I think the patch work is likely to give way to replacement in the near term.
Any new products or news in the offing?
Absolutely. We will be keeping with our recent trend of new product introduction and over the course of the next 12 months you’ll see us introduce a new product in each of our technology categories.
On the boiler side we’ll be introducing our first light commercial condensing models featuring our unique stainless steel heat exchanger design. Our Argo control platform will add the “Universal” switching relay that will feature a host of new features and technology in that segment.
The Olsen and Airco furnace platforms added a high efficiency, multi-positional low profile oil furnace this month that I suspect will redefine that segment.
And last we have just added our new 4-pipe chilled water recessed cassette air handler to our Comfortwave chilled water air handler line.
Describe the importance of contractor training.
I believe condensing furnaces were first introduced back in the late 1980s and over the past 30 years or so they have become a significant portion of the annual installed furnace base. Boiler installers didn’t have 30+ years to digest and get familiar with condensing technology. Though ECR was the first to offer a 95% AFUE boiler back in 1996 the rise of condensing boilers really has taken place over the last 10 years or so. Between technology and regulatory changes the entire residential boiler market has changed over the past several years. I have a tremendous amount of empathy for boiler installers today trying to keep up with that pace of change. The only way to keep up is through education so contractor training is hugely important to the dealer and the manufacturer. The contractor needs to understand the nuances of new equipment and technologies but more importantly how these new products are applied and what unforeseen challenges might result.
Our preferred method of training is to have contractors visit our corporate training center. This is our best venue for training hands on and they also see our research laboratory and manufacturing operations. Unfortunately, coming to Utica, N.Y., is not always possible so we have invested in additional live fire training centers at our newly opened offices in Hopkinton, Mass. and at in Dunkirk, N.Y. We believe in providing resources at the point of use so we invested in these additional facilities to spread our geographic coverage. Likewise, we continue to offer training in conjunction with our distributor partners at various locations around the country.
New for 2015, we introduced the Hydronic Boot Camp, which is a whole system approach to training our professional trade partners. We cover our condensing boiler products and technology but spend as much time covering system application and how to overcome commonly seen field installation issues. We bring together other component manufacturers like Taco, Centrotherm, Grundfos, Caleffi, Sentinel and others so that system component providers that installers use are in the same room training in a holistic, system approach. Ideally, students attend training at one of our 3-live fire facilities where they will learn while operating products. When contractors can’t come to training our locations we do offer many seminars around the country. If dealers go to www.hydronicbootcamp.com they can choose from the many dates and places for training by brand.
Boilers are now transforming themselves into intelligent, communicative integrated systems. In this era of the Internet of Things, how have ECR boilers and controls evolved?
So far most communicative controls have been focused on temperature monitoring and adjustment which has some sizzle for the end user but the actual value and utility to the trade is questionable.
Our Argo AR500 line has offered remote temperature monitoring with adjustment capability since the 1990s, mostly for snowbirds, so that functionality isn’t all that new. We have already proven out and deployed remote operation monitoring in one of our joint ventures the question is how to take that technology and know-how and adapt it in the boiler world where we typically do not develop the operating board.
More likely we will see boiler control intelligence sooner in the area of self-commissioning and adjustment within the modulating condensing segment. European control manufacturers are quickly developing these capabilities in an integrated structure that amalgamates all electronic and control functionality. This type technology begins to create a greater amount of value for the installer which is the customer group we are primarily focused on.
Finally, the last time you said, “Today is a great day,” you were doing what?
I’ve been very lucky and have been able to say that many times, but likely it would be just after sun up on an Adirondack lake ready to make my first cast or then again it might be on the first tee. Like I say, I’ve been lucky.
ECR International — In 1928 Earle C. Reed founded two separately owned and operated New York State companies, Utica Boiler and Dunkirk Radiator, the companies merged in 1999 and took our common founder’s initials as its corporate name — ECR International.